Food and drink companies’ role in the nation’s health came under intense scrutiny from all sides this year, says Siân Harrington

Disbelief, confusion, exasperation and frustration - if you have had anything to do with building the government’s health strategy into your business this year, these are just some of the emotions you will have felt.
At the beginning of the year, food and drink companies seemed to be in a no-win situation as their role in the nation’s health came under ever more intense scrutiny from both government and the media.
On the one hand, they had to fight for any recognition at all of the good achievements they had made to date on reformulation, labelling and socially responsible advertising strategies. On the other, their calls for a practical, sensible and joined-up approach to implementing the Choosing Health White Paper fell mainly on deaf ears.
The government’s own deadlines came and went - and, after it all went quiet, it began to look as if the year would end with food and drink companies little further ahead in understanding exactly what was required of them. More importantly, they were running out of time to show they could put their house in order voluntarily, no thanks to the slippage of deadlines.
But there was some solace at The Grocer’s White Paper seminar in November. A change at the top - new public health minister Caroline Flint replacing the industry-unfriendly Melanie Johnson - brought a glimmer of hope that the infighting between the Department of Health and Food Standards Agency was a thing of the past and that a more constructive relationship with industry was on the cards.
It couldn’t come soon enough. The souring relations between the industry and the DH were apparent from January when Cadbury Schweppes chairman John Sunderland warned that food and drink companies, while keen to work with government to promote health, would not throw money at a campaign demonising their own products.
Two months later Food and Drink Federation president Gavin Neath slammed the DH for failing to work with the industry to improve the nation’s health. He said: “There is one big lacuna in our links with government. We have yet to build a really effective relationship with the DH. If the good intentions of the Health White Paper are to be translated into action then, like it or not, the food industry will need to be involved.”
What a difference eight months made. In November, Neath was telling the audience at The Grocer’s seminar: “We have a solid, robust relationship with the Food Standards Agency. We believe we are building a similar one with the Department of Health.”
And Flint’s comment that there had been progress with industry when it came to dialogue, together with FSA deputy chair Julia Unwin’s acknowledgment that any turf war between the FSA and DH was firmly in the past, were welcomed by the industry. Flint said: “I hope that the industry realises that if it has issues it can talk to us about them.”
Nevertheless, many of the big questions at the beginning of the year have yet to be fully answered. Nutrient profiling is still a sticking point. Over the year the FSA’s model has variously been criticised by the industry and nutritionists as unworkable, too simplistic, disproportionate and scientifically flawed. FDF deputy director general Martin Paterson said in October that the FSA had “pulled a fast one” by changing the model during consultation without notifying the industry. The point-scoring approach now means ‘bad’ nutrients are not offset by ‘good’ nutrients.
The FSA’s Unwin was visibly surprised by the accusations over its scientific merit at The Grocer’s seminar and has invited industry to approach the agency with any concerns.
But the point still stands that the objectives of the model, which will underpin Ofcom’s classification of products that can and cannot be advertised to children, are unclear. Is it to address obesity, the balance of nutrients or to reduce hypertension by cutting out products high in salt (not something that affects kids anyway)? Each issue has a different solution and one model cannot satisfy all. And the use of 100g portion sizes, when many of the products are eaten in quantities well below this, is absurd.
Then there is the question of how